Where does handwriting end and calligraphy begin?

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Calligraphy – written art

Let us begin at the very beginning – handwriting is simply writing in hand, using an implement like the pen or the pencil. Each person’s handwriting is not only different from the others but is also unique and while some handwriting is a treat to the eye, some are equal in being eyesores – the inability to produce clear, coherent or crisp handwriting termed as dysgraphia.


Calligraphy on the other hand, is a visual art form – one in which letters are designed and executed by hand with the instruments like a pen (often with broad nibs) or brushes that bring to life the written word with harmony and expressiveness. It is as much a tribute to the skill of the writer, as it is a treat to the eye of the beholder. It goes without saying, that like all art forms, here too the practitioner is required to go through rigorous training, often over long periods of time, before they reach the level of desired mastery over their chosen craft and talent. Call it God’s gift if you may, but talent alone is never enough to exalt one to the status of an ace calligrapher.  

It is obvious, and I will say this right upfront (even running the risk of sounding corny and cliched) – all calligraphy is handwritten, but all handwriting is not calligraphy!


In a post modern world, where we seldom take up the pen to let our thoughts crystallise on paper – preferring to key in the words – and where our children are growing up without having either pen or paper in hand, such a piece, aimed at differentiating good handwriting from calligraphy may seem, at least to some, an exercise in futility, an anachronism even, but then again, just because pebbles are scarce we don’t call them diamonds, do we?

Much have been said (and written) about the need to reintroduce the fountain pen in our schools and the arguments are compelling to put things mildly. I will not go into it but surely urge, that you allow me to swish two drops of ink in the topic. Reintroduce the fountain pen, help improve the handwriting of our future generations. Do it by all means, just don’t term it as Calligraphy. As it is, out there, are too many out of work housewives with certificates “earned” after attending three-hour courses calling themselves calligraphers! Some of them are even conducting classes of their own and are known to rattle terms like “cursive” and “copper-plate” even as they draw the perfect grid lines on wedding cards. Don’t be appalled if you notice that they can’t even hold the pen properly. The plastic “Calligraphy Sets” that they flash out of their scabbard, itself being a misnomer!

As for the “scabbard”, it is perhaps all the fault of whoever coined the term “the pen is mightier than the sword” – for these so-called fashion Calligraphers are known to have taken the saying in its literal, face value, gripping their plastic pens and ink cartridges like swords!

Mahatma Gandhi - handwriting

For Heaven’s sake don’t commit the sacrilege. For Calligraphy is like cricket. You can replace the Test with a T-20, but you can’t do away with either the skills or the dedication that Tendulkars make. The One-day format robbed cricket a lot more than the white flannels and the sobriquet of being called a “gentleman’s game” – it brought it down to the level of a brawl between the ball and the bat, whose first victim was the finesse, the “wristy” shots, the caress of the willow on the hurtling or the spinning leather. And now, T-20 has reduced it further to blind hitting, beginning with lofting the very grammar of the game over the boundary. Need I add, that it is the same with Calligraphy – Handwriting, however good, is merely a one-dayer, while T-20 can never be anything more than doodling.     

Leonardo Da Vinci - handwriting

You can reduce the scribe to writing messages for the Valentine’s Day shoppers, but you can’t make any random shopper do the job of a scribe. And writing by hand, however good, does not a calligrapher make.

It wasn’t after all, not for nothing that the scribe was once the most respected of the courtiers in the Regent’s inner circle. It wasn’t after all, not for nothing, that the knowledge and consequently the techniques and art of Calligraphy, was once the exclusive domains of the monks across almost all civilisations. It wasn’t after all, not for nothing that Calligraphy was once known as the purest, most sacred of the art forms. It wasn’t after all, not for nothing that the brightest and best, God’s “chosen Ones” were trained as calligraphers – for the work was monotonous, back breaking, often known to test the limits of endurance and sanity of the protagonist, yet demanding creativity of a level that blurs the limits between human effort and divine intervention. 


That Calligraphy reached the zenith as an art form with the Saracens was therefore no coincidence – it is due to Islamic art’s non-figural tradition and reflects the centrality of the notion of writing and the written text. As a matter of fact, it is also believed that the Prophet Muhammad is related to have stated that “the first thing that God created was the pen”.

Today there are no entry barriers to calligraphy. There are no standards for the world to follow. No university that recognises the art form. There is no professional body that represents the practitioners – and perhaps as a natural fallout, while the masters wile away their time in penury, the pseudo and the poseurs pass off hand written scribbles as scriptures.

Watch this space. I will have more things to say on the subject.   


9 Replies to “Where does handwriting end and calligraphy begin?”

  1. Dear Chawm,
    This is a beautifully written article which explains the nuances of Handwriting, Lettering and Calligraphy. I hope more and more people read this article. Your analogy of different formats of cricket provides the much needed clarity to educate the general public.
    They will know the truth in its length, breadth, heights and the depths of these subjects to differentiate the Cachography & Chowchowgraphy from true Calligraphy which is born out of dedication arising out of patience, perseverance and passion with its spiritual dimension, culminating into the mesmerizing grandeur of the visual precision!
    I am sure many readers will now develop the correct perception of all these visual expressions!

    1. Janu the article on calligraphy was very informative and educative. The comparison of a test match and a T20 was apt.
      Calligraphy is music to ones eyes was also a way of emphasising on it.

  2. This article what i was waiting for. Hearing so much about this art and the legends name behind this,now this article truly raise my interest level into a new height. Thank you. Waiting for more.

  3. there is something in calligraphy writing which a normal handwriting cant give. people like me get engaged on anything written so beautifully with this art. Not only a person writing his feeling or his ind but also the way he presents the art of writing in most beautiful way possible. As you said Test match is much more rigorous and tough than T-20. Same can be said about calligraphy.

  4. Dear ganguly sir,
    Very nice article about calligraphy .
    I didnt knew this blog is urs one of my students saw the image in this article arabic callography , he noticed the signature is mine and sent me link.
    I loveur articles i read them allot specially KC bhai’s.

    My name is Syed sha Abul Hassan Quadri we met in India penshow.

    I would love to talk with u if u can provide ur contact info to me or u can call me directly on . 8639740911

    1. Sayedji,
      how can i forget you? You were so kind to write my name, which I treasure. as a matter of fact, i have also carried an image of the work of art created by you in my my blog! Thank you for your kind words about the blog – we are close to turning one and have already, with the love, affection and blessings of the fountain pen and calligraphy community, reached an enviable status. It was indeed a pleasure meeting you in the India Pen Show in Mumbai and i look forward to having the pleasure of meeting you again. Do let me know if i can be of any help / assistance.
      Best Regards,
      Suvobrata Ganguly


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